Indian Journal of History of Science, 33(1), 1998



(Received 26 May 1997; after revision 14 July 1997)'

In his commentary on the Rgveda, the fourteenth century scholar Sayana mentions a specific speed for the sun which can be used to determine the distance to the sun. Vartak has interpreted this statement to stand for the speed of light but we cannot place that in any reasonable historical context. the distance to the sun implied by Sayana's statement suggests that there was another astronomical tradition in India which is now lost.

Key-words: Medieval astronomy, Siddhantas, Solar system


Sayana (c. 1315-1387) was a minister in the Court of King Bukka I of the Vijayanagar Empire in South India; he was also a great Vedic scholar who wrote extensive commentaries on several ancient texts. In his commentary on the fourth verse of hymn 1.50 of the Rgveda on the sun, he says'

tatha ca smaryate yojandniim sahasre dve dve sate dve ca yojane ekena nimisiirdhena kramamana namo 'stu fa iti

Thus it is remembered: [0 Sun,] bow to you, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesa.

We have no knowledge that Sayana was an astronomer and he acknowledges that he is only quoting from an old tradition, so we label this note as "Sayana's astronomy" only in the sense of what was known by his time in the fourteenth century.

Padmakar Vishnu Vartak in a recent book? has argued that this statement refers to the speed of light. He says, "One Yojana is equal to 9 miles, 110 yards == 91116 miles == 9.0625, ... and according to Mahabhiirata.t Siinti Parva, 231, half a nimesa equals 8175 seconds. If calculated on this data the velocity of light comes to 187,084.1 miles per second ... Sir Monier Williams gives one Yojana equal to 4 Krosa == 9 miles. Taking 1 Yojana == 9 miles, the velocity comes to 186,413.22 miles per second. The well accepted popular scientific figure is 186,300 miles per second."


Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5901, USA



This is astounding because it is in remarkable agreement with our current knowledge about the speed of light! Vartak's reference on the nimesa from the Mahabharata, which is usually assigned to 400 Be to 400 AD, is correct.' The specific definition of a nimesa is there given by 450 x 30.1 nimesa = 1 muhisrta (48 minutes), which


means that one nimesa is -- seconds. The yojana is a well known unit of distance

. 75.3

and the value ascribed by Vartak is the usual one." Even if one argues that there was no standardization of measures in the ancient world and the specific values assigned by Vartak for yojana and nimesa were not used by all the ancient authorities, just the fact that there could be mention of a finite speed of light three centuries before that discovery by Roemer is not believable. Furthermore, we cannot place such knowledge in context.

So should we take the statement of Sayaua as an amazing coincidence? From all accounts, the passage is not an interpolation. There are those who would suggest that consciousness reflecting on itself can obtain such quantitative information. But if one discounted that possibility then, wanting evidence of instrumentation that would have allowed an actual measurement of the speed of light to have been made in medieval India of Sayana's time, the only way Vartak's interpretation can be justified is to assume that the speed was a lucky guess.

We do know that in the Indian tradition a finite speed was associated with the astronomical processes. Thus in the Surya Siddhiinta 2.1-3, the motion of the planets is described in terms of the action of cords of "air" :

Forms of Time, of invisible shape, stationed in the zodiac (bhagana], called the conjunction (Sighrocca), apsis (mandocca), and node (pata), are causes of the motion of the planets.

The planets, attached to these beings by cords of air, are drawn away by them, with the right and left hand, forward or backward, according to nearness, toward their own place.

A wind, moreover, called provector (pravaha) impels them toward their own apices (ucca); being drawn away forward and backward, they proceed by a varying motion,"

The important point here is that gravitation is expressed in terms of a force which is compared to a wind. One would assume, then, that light must have also been compared to a wind and thus taken to have a finite speed.



It is possible that the speed of 2,202 yojana to half a nimesa was chosen just to make the time spent by light on its journey from the sun to the earth equal a round number in some convenient units. Again, this would make this choice just an astonishing coincidence.

On the other hand, if Vartak's interpretation - that the statement refers to the rays of the sun - is wrong, then should we take it to be the speed of the sun? That this is likely is because the luminaries were taken to move at speeds that were more or less fixed. For the other planets this speed was considered to be 11,858.75 yojanas,' and there was a corresponding tradition regarding the speed of the sun. In this note we explore the implications of this interpretation that Sayana's remarks referred to the speed of the sun in its orbit.


Can one consider the possibility that nimesa in Sayana's statement only means the "twinkling of an eyelid" - the usual non-technical meaning of the term? This possibility is not credible because then Sayana would have had no need to give a precise figure of 2,202 yojanas in relation to a figure of speech. In such a situation, a "thousand (for 'a large number') yojanas in a nimesa (for 'a twinkling of an eyelid')" might have been used. So it seems quite certain that a specific meaning of the term nimesa is meant here.

The definition of nimesa in the Puriinas generally agrees with that given in the Mahiibhiirata. Yojana is an ancient measure which we come across in the Rgveda. This is how the two units are defined in the chapter 2.20 of the Arthasiistra,8 which is attributed to Kautilya (320 BC) :

Yojana. 8,000 dhanus (dhanus means bow, taken to be about 6 feet). A dhanus is also taken to be equal to one paurusa, the height of a person, so assigning about 6 feet to it is reasonable. One dhanus is considered equal to 108 angulas (fingers). It is a stage, 9.1 miles approximately, and according to Kangle it has "reference to the 'yoking' of bullocks, i.e., distance covered before the yoke is taken off."

Nlmesa. 150 nimesa equal 1 kalii and 80 kaliis equal one muhisrta (48 minutes). 6

This means that one nimesa equals - or about one-fourth of a second.

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We see the same definition of yojana in most astronomical texts over several centuries, including in one commentary by Yallaya, who lived just a century later than Sayana in South India." On the other hand, the definition of yojana by Aryabhata (c. 499) is different. He takes nr (man) to be equal to 96 angulas and then he considers



a yojana to equal 8,000 nr. This amounts to his yojana being equal to approximately 7'h miles.'? Aryabhata takes the earth's diameter to be 1,050 yo janas, whereas his commentator Bhaskara I, writing a century later, uses another definition of yojana so that the earth's diameter is 1,600 yojanas.

Burgess provides the following commentary on the unit of yojana :11

The usual reckoning makes the yojana equal to 32.000 cubits ["cubit" is hasta, hand, which ought to be close to 18 inches], but it is also sometimes regarded as composed of 16,000 cubits; and it is accordingly estimated by different authorities at from four and a half to rather more than ten miles English.

Nevertheless, one can speak of what should be the "standard" unit of yojana and nimesa by considering astronomical texts." According to these sources, a yojana is 8,000 dhanus or 32,000 hastas, which is approximately 9 miles, and a nimesa is given by the equation that

I 8 nimesas = 1 ka~!ha 30 kiisthiis = 1 kala

30 kalas = I muhurta (48 minutes),


This amounts to one nimesa being equal to - seconds. In the various definitions,

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nimesa is approximately one-fifth to one-fourth seconds: the four variants being

1 16 6 8 - and-

5" 75.3' 25' 45


We first note that there exist many traditions regarding the distance to the sun.

The earliest of these is the statement in the Pahcavimsa Briihmana 16.8.6 that the heavens are 1,000 earth diameters away from the earth. Since the sun was taken to be half-way to the heavens this indicates a distance of 500 earth diameters. There are other references in the Briihmanas that indicate that the Indians knew that the orbit of the sun was not perfectly symmetrical." Here we are interested in reviewing the tradition about the distance to the sun during the Siddhantic period.

yojanas. But remember that Aryabhata uses a measure of yojana which is 108

Aryabhata, in his Aryabhafiya 1.6, gives the distance of the sun, R" to be 459,585 96


the standard yojana."



Sayana's statement can be used to determine the distance R to the sun. We have


1t X R, = speed/hour x 12 hours.

This amounts to the distance to the sun being equal to

R =


2202 x 90 x 60 x 60 x 12 8x1t

'" 340.6 X 106 yojanas.

This is approximately 740 times large than the estimate during Aryabhata's time, assuming the same yojanas were used.

The correct value for the distance is 93 million miles. if Sayana was using a short measure of yojana then his estimate was only 10 times greater than the modem value. On the other hand, Aryabhata's estimate - and a similar estimate by Ptolemy, - which was typical for the ancient and the medieval world until the time of Copernicus and


Brahe," was about - of the correct value. 27

If we use the standard yojana, the distance of the sun by Sayana's statement becomes approximately 3,000 million miles which is almost as far as the far reaches of the solar system.


Even considering the standard measures of yojana and nimesa, Sayana's statement, if interpreted as the speed of light, comes pretty close to the true value. If we take . this to be no more than a coincidence and interpret SiiyaIJa to mean the speed of the sun, then we get a distance to the sun which is much greater than anyone could have imagined before the speed of light was actually computed by Roemer. Tnis second interpretation also leaves us with an unresolved puzzle.

Perhaps, the resolution of this puzzle lies in the recognition that there existed astronomical ideas in India other than those which have survived as the extant Siddhiintas. The Indian books also speak of lost Siddhantas. Sayana appears to quote from one such· lost tradition: This tradition may have considered the solar system to be enormously large trying to reconcile this size to the huge numbers related to the cycle of 8.64 billion years in the Puriinic theory of the kalpa.

Collecting astronomical references in the various Indian texts that do not fit into the standard Siddhantic models may lead to the recovery of some of the lost traditions. The referee of this paper notes that Sayana's brother Madhava wrote two books on



astronomy, the Kiilanirnaya (also called the Kiila-Miidhava) and a commentary on the Parasara-Smrti known as the Pariisara-Miidhaviya; these may be two sources to begin looking for non-Siddhantic and "non-standard" astronomical notions current in the fourteenth century.


I. Muller, Max (ed), 1890. Rgveda-Samhita together with the Commentary of Siiyana. Oxford University Press, London.

2. Vartak, P.V., 1995. Scientific Knowledge in the Vedas. Nag Publishers, Delhi.

3. Mahiibhiirata (GIta Press Edition), Santi Parvan, chapter 231, verse 12.

4. Ganguli, K.M., 1970. The Mahiibhiirata. Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, vol. 9, p. 155.

5. Basham. A.L.. 1967. The Wonder that Was India. Sidgwick and Jackson. London. p. 594.

6. Burgess. E .• 1989. The Surya Siddhiinta. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 53.

7. Diksit, S. B .• 1896. Bharatiya Jyotisa. Translated from Marathi into Hindi by S. Jharkhandi. Hindi Samity, Lakhanau, 1963. p. 422.

8. Kangle, R.P., 1986 (1972). The Kautiliya Arthasiistra. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.

9. Shukla. K.S .• 1976. Aryabha(iya opf Aryabha!a. Indian National Science Academy. New Delhi. p. xliii.

10. Shukla, 1976. p. 19.

I I. Burgess, 1989 (1860), p. 43. 12. Basham, 1967. pp. 505-506.

13. This whole question will be discussed in a separate paper.

14. In the Aryabhata-siddhunta, A.ryabha!a uses another measure of yojana which is two-thirds the one in the A.ryabha!iya.

15. Neugebauer, 0 .. 1975. A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. Springer-Verlag. Berlin.

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